There There executes a rather ingenious approach to the Covid shoot and delivers another win for Bujalski.
Over the last few years, Andrew Bujalski’s career trajectory has mirrored that of his associate Joe Swanberg, leveling up from super low-budget indies starring friends and non-actors to less low-budget work populated by TV and character actors, with Bujalski’s vaguely nightmarish 2013 comedy Computer Chess a standout defiant of this projected career arc. Once more coincidentally in sync, Bujalski’s latest, a follow-up to his much-loved 2018 picture Support the Girls, is a stripped-down pandemic film, superficially akin to Swanberg’s accidental pandemic film Build the Wall. But whereas that film was shot prior to the Covid fallout of 2020 and just so happened to echo the spirit of the moment, this new Bujalski feature, There There, was conceived in direct response to the new complications imposed upon the filmmaking process at the height of the pandemic, designing a unique formal approach that doesn’t attempt to get around these constrictions, but instead abides by them in an extreme, rather ingenious fashion.
A series of six vignettes, each featuring a pair of characters in spirited dialogue and filmed mostly as shot/reverse shots, There There’s big trick is that it’s really a series of solo performances remotely directed by Bujalski and long-time cinematographer Matthias Grunsky, ultimately stitched together in postproduction. Shot entirely on iPhones across various states and countries, often in abrasive, off-center compositions, There There is first and foremost a feat of editing on Bujalski’s part, and cinematic performance on the part of his cast, and ultimately a testament to the enduring power of the medium’s most basic, essential tools. It’s also a largely entertaining comedy of social unease, bearing Bujalski’s recognizable writing voice, an appealing balance of literary wit and well-observed mundanities which he adapts to his diverse cast quite nimbly. Each vignette leads into the next, linked by one of the characters from the previous scenario, with all of them united in a sense of contemporary fragility, these varied players all reaching for and contending with the consequences of human connectedness. Bujalski escalates the scope of each scene, starting out with the most obvious iteration — the morning after a one-night stand between a shining Lili Taylor and charming Lennie James — before moving into first the corporate realm and then the supernatural.
Though the backdrop of Covid might cast these thematic ideas in a somewhat unfavorable, reductive light, There There transcends the potential gimmick factor of its production circumstance to achieve a remarkable synthesis. And in the moments where we do see the seams, it only underscores the conscious precarity of these dynamics, one that Bujalski has investigated from a number of angles over the course of his career, but never with such an involved formal framework to support it. Not quite as substantial as milestones like Funny HaHa or the aforementioned Computer Chess and Support the Girls, There There is hardly slight either (despite what its lack of a marketing campaign might suggest), featuring a couple of the year’s best performances — Austin-based actor Annie La Ganga makes a big impression as an AA sponsor/mother of a teen pervert — and one its better scripts. The result is a refreshingly sensitive, good-natured American indie with the potential to please the crowds who find it.